The Willow Society

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Chapter 27

Chapter 27

When Taylor came to, he shook his head, groggily, wondered what had happened, how much time had passed. He brought his hand up to his mouth, the hand shaking as it rose, coming back bloody when Taylor pulled it back. Taylor shook his head again, tried to clear it, to make sense of what was going on. He didn't seem to be hurt badly, other than his lip, which he could feel getting fatter. His stomach roiled and he felt he was going to throw up. He didn't like blood at all.

“Winston?“ Taylor croaked.

No response. Dread crept up Taylor's spine, nearly blotting out everything else. He feared Winston might have been hurt too badly to speak, even killed. Taylor saw Winston lying still, slumped against the side of the door. The car was upright, apparently landing so after whatever it had crashed into. Taylor sighed and reached out towards Winston, fighting at the same time to keep his stomach from heaving. Please don't be dead. Sounds rushed back.

Movement from the front of the town car drew Taylor's gaze. The driver at least was still alive, the glass partition remained unbroken, but it had slid half-way down.

“Winston!“ Taylor called out. He shook the other boy gently.

A groan.

At first Taylor couldn't tell if it came from up front, from the driver, or from Winston. Winston shifted and groaned. “Ugh. T. You OK?“ Winston said leaning up and rubbing his head. He had a purpling bruise on the side of his face.

“My lip's busted, but yeah.“ Taylor said, his voice boiled with gladness Winston was alright. Winston struggled to remove the seat beat which had likely saved his life and Taylor followed suit. “We have to get out of here, T.“ Winston said as he struggled. Distantly Taylor heard the sound of sirens. “I think help is coming.“ Taylor said. Winston shook his head. More noise from up front, the sound of a seat belt unbuckling and the car shifted as the driver threw weight against the door.

“This can't be coincidence, Taylor. This guy...“ Winston flicked his head towards the front of the car and the driver struggling to get out, “He was waiting for us. I don't know how or why. But he must have been. And who that was behind didn't want him to have us.“ This is nuts. Silly beyond belief. We're just two kids. Who would chase a car for two kids?

The car behind had tried to wreck the town car, had probably been trying to kill them and the driver of the town car. That thought went through Taylor like an electric jolt.

“We have to get out of here.“ Taylor said, trying to open his door and finding it locked. There were no unlocking buttons, nor any manual switch they could pull at. Taylor swore. Winston threw himself against the door, kicked at the glass partition. His motions adding to those form the driver up front.

Taylor turned around and pressed his back against the hard partition beneath the glass. He lifted his legs up and kicked at the glass windshield in the back of the car. It moved, slightly. “Winston! Help me!“ Taylor shouted and kicked again. The glass shifted again. Winston mimicked Taylor. A tall, sunglasses-wearing man in a dark color blazer strolled up, his mouth drawn into a thin line and one hand tucked ominously under his jacket. The man's face hovered outside the window, stared at Taylor and Winston. He swiveled forward, stopped in front of the driver's side window.

Taylor kicked harder, the man's appearance driving his urgency. The glass gave way, flew forward from the car and landed on the street, where it crashed and shattered. Struggling sounds came from the front and the whole car was shook. Taylor hesitated for a second, looking for the blazer-clad man, but not seeing him, dove towards the new opening in the back of the car. He climbed out. Winston was right behind.

As soon as his feet hit the ground, Taylor heard gunshots. Winston fell sideways and dove to the ground behind the car. Taylor was slower, but followed. A second gunshot cracked the air and Taylor dove to the ground as well. The town car was no longer shook.

Taylor, from under the car, saw a pair of booted feet turn and start walking along the side of the town car, towards the front. Winston edged away, a look of stark terror on his face. Taylor backed away as well, on his hands and knees. The sound of sirens became much more pronounced and the booted feet stopped. Taylor's breath caught in his throat and his heart raced. The booted feet did not come any closer. In fact, they turned towards the sound of the oncoming sirens. They began running in the opposite direction, in the direction Taylor and Winston had been traveling before the town car crashed.

Winston panted, in relief or fear, Taylor couldn't guess. His own heart was about pop out of his chest. Before saw anything else, the sound of sirens became overwhelming and everything went black again.

A slow rumbling of thumps eased Taylor back into waking. He had been dreaming of a morning back in Channelview. Back on the day when he had found out just how dangerous diving into a river could be.

He had been swimming in the Brazos River and with his confidence high had gotten his ten-year-old self out of the water, climbed into an overhanging tree and dived off. Once he hit the water, everything went murky and dark as he slid downward. He turned in circles and the murk thickened. He lost all sense of direction, of up and down. Most of the air went out of him and his head felt wrapped in cotton slowly being forced down his throat. A grand moment of panic set in and only the feeling of his friend Kevin's arm touching him underwater, allowed him to reorient himself and swim in that direction. He broke the surface, spluttering, his tears masked by the water running down his face.

Awake now from the dream of that morning, Taylor's sense of orientation was dull, he blinked, he had no idea where he was, or how he had gotten there. Slow, gentle thumps rocked under him and he swayed each time. He was lying on something soft, but couldn't move. The memory of the accident, of the blazer-clad man and his gun, and horrifyingly, the gunshots, rushed back. Taylor jerked, tried to sit up and found he couldn't. A siren wailed and Taylor finally understood where he was.

Inside an ambulance.

He still tasted the tang, sharp and metallic, of blood inside his mouth.

“Winston?“ Taylor said, his voice sound sluggish.

“You aight, honey?“ A woman's voice said. A large-breasted, thick-waisted woman leaned over him, peering into his eyes, shining a light. Taylor barely saw her uniform. He shook his head to avoid the light.

“Where's Winston?“ Taylor croaked.

“Over here, T.“ Winston said. He was sitting upright on a second gurney a foot away. Other than a bruise blooming on the side of his face, nothing seemed to be wrong with him. A thought occurred to Taylor.

“The driver?“ He whispered as the EMS woman leaned forward to talk with whomever drove the ambulance.

“Shot. Dead.“ A man's voice.

Taylor tried to sit up yet again before remembering he was strapped down. Another EMS tech moved into his field of vision, from the front of the ambulance. After a few seconds, Taylor saw it was not an EMS worker, but a police officer. He was muscular and beefy, had coal-dark skin and a bald head. He looked like he managed the detail of a sub-Saharan Prime Minister's security force. The fat EMS woman clucked stiffly, “You're not supposed to tell them that, they're kids, no need to be scaring them!“

“Where are we going?“ Taylor asked.

“Mount Sinai.“ Winston said. “Your parents are on the way.“ Winston sounded very unhappy about that. Taylor went cold, realizing the situation he was in. How am I going to explain this to my parents?

Hours later, past midnight, Taylor stared glumly at the ground as his parents led him out of the hospital. He was alright, suffering only from a shallow cut on his lower lip which hadn't needed stitches, and a sprained wrist. Winston had fared just as well, the livid bruise on his face the only damage he sustained. Taylor hadn't seen Winston since the boys were admitted, but he knew the other boy was already gone, retrieved by his stepmother. Behind him, Taylor felt his parent's eyes on the back of his head, boring holes into his skull. They were very angry.

“You were supposed to be at that.... that... club place, weren't you?“ June Zachary had spluttered after the doctors told her Taylor would be just fine. “What were you doing in a town car in Midtown?” Taylor had to struggle to remember exactly what he had told his parents. He had told them his time at Chatham House was for a computer club, in preparation for CryptoCon. Sue-Ann had verified it when his mother called. “What makes you think a fourteen year old boy is allowed to roam the City at night?“ Taylor had blinked at that. His mother had changing quickly, only weeks before she was still calling their new home New York City now she had adjusted and called it simply the City like everyone else who lived there.

Taylor had bitten the bullet when she said that, told her he and Winston had sneaked off. “Unsupervised? Without permission? Have. You. Lost. Your. Mind?“ With every word she had seemed to grow angrier, while Taylor's father Dan had sat next to her silent and glowering. Disgusted, Taylor listened and looked weary until June threw up her hands and said, “Dan? Will you talk some sense into your son? He'll be lucky if we don't cancel this CryptoCon altogether. I'm not so sure he should be allowed to go back to this club...“

Dan coughed. June's mouth closed abruptly. “Your mother is right, son.“ Dan sighed, wearily as Taylor looked. His father had been working all day and instead of being allowed to sleep in preparation for his shift tomorrow, he was here, near midnight in the hospital with Taylor and June, William asleep in a chair in the corner. Dan wiped his eyes slowly with his thumb and index finger.

“This really is unacceptable. After everything we've gone through so you can have this opportunity...“ Taylor's eyebrows went up at that. They had moved to New York City in large part because of Taylor's scholarship to Willow Prep, but Taylor's father had also been laid off at his job in Channelview. Prospects had brightened quickly when Dan began applying for jobs in New York City. His father had secured a job within two weeks of Taylor finding out about the scholarship, weeks before the family actually moved. Still Taylor knew better than to bring any of that up. “I shudder to think what might have happened to you, son. If I didn't have assurances from those two nice women that you would never be out of their sight again, I would forbid you from this club. Oh yes, I talked them!“ Taylor's breath caught in his throat at the words his father said.

Oh hell. He talked to Isabel and Sue-Ann? Great. Now I'm really in for it.

Taylor wanted to protest, a little at least, but in reality he was relieved. There was no mention of guns or dead cab drivers, or cars following, or large men in dark blazers with sunglasses on at night. He assumed Isabel and Sue-Ann had taken care of that. The women had likely spoken with the police and the NSA, as apparently Agent Alexander had made an appearance shortly after the boys were admitted. What did she want? The women told Taylor this as he awaited the arrival of his parents. He hadn't seen either woman since. He wouldn't have known Winston had been released if his father hadn't seen the boy leaving as Dan he went for coffee. Apparently Dan had run into Isabel and Sue-Ann sometime around then as well, and spoken long enough for the two women to assure him Taylor would be better watched in the future. Taylor wondered what that truly meant. How will it affect Winston's catburglary?

“And I don't think you need to be associating with...“ June cut in, “that boy anymore, that Winston. He's a bad influence!“ His parents had only met Winston once, briefly, but it seemed June did not want to think of Taylor as truly being at fault. Moms.

“Son, I just don't know what to do about all this.“ Dan began. Taylor had always been a good kid: had never been grounded, nor had his little brother. His parents did not believe in that kind of punishment, nor had he given them sufficient reason to consider it. The worst Taylor had ever had to endure was the loss of his favorite series of books for a few days when he had hit William in anger, two years back.

“You nearly gave us a heart attacks tonight.“ Dan continued. By us, he of course, meant himself. Dan seemed stolid and calm on the outside, but in reality he was the more nerve-wracked of Taylor's parents. For all her anger, June Zachary was not the kind of woman debilitated by such moments; she would become focused, calm, all her faculties put into solving whatever situation had presented itself. She became the “rock” until the emergency passed.

Taylor gulped. “I'm really sorry guys. I just...“ Taylor couldn't think of anything to say, so he just closed his mouth after that. A cab finally pulled up to the curb and Taylor would have flinched if he hadn't been so exhausted. He yawned expansively and just stared out the back window on the drive home. Just as they reached the East Village Taylor reached into a pocket, his thoughts going back to his thumbdrive for the first time since the accident, wanting to make sure it was safe.

He dug around in his pockets and couldn't find it. The re was nothing but lint. Trying not to seem frantic and at the same time hold down the rising panic inside, careful not to draw his parent's attention, Taylor searched all his pockets thoroughly. Nothing. There's nothing there. My thumbdrive is gone. I have nothing to show for the evening's fiasco. All my hacking tools were on that drive. CRAP. A brief flash of hope ignited when he fervently wished Winston had grabbed the device out of his pocket, but as much as Taylor wanted to believe such, the hope quickly faded. Glumness grew and morphed into cold dread. He was going to have to explain everything to Isabel and Sue-Ann. They had not insisted he do so in the hospital, but surely would next time he was at the HQ and he had nothing to show.

Taylor sighed, pressed his head against the window glass as the buildings of late night Manhattan rolled by, the few people out walking looking harsh and unreal, the lights seemingly too bright and yet dull at the same time.

Now I just have to wait.

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